6 Unforgettable Desert Parks VCW_D_DeathValley_T2_John Buie_5141291809_69cac0e972_o_1280x642
John Buie

6 Unforgettable Desert Parks

Both vast and intimate, the California desert is a region that ranges from arid, barren expanses to oasis-like canyons with hidden waterfalls. Towering sand dunes rise above the desert floor, while Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park is the lowest point in North America at 282 feet/86 meters below sea level. After winter rains, see spectacular springtime wildflower displays splashed across the desert vistas. Explore volcanic craters, and watch rock climbers scramble up towering boulders (and maybe even try it yourself). 

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Mojave National Preserve

Mojave National Preserve

Mojave National Preserve
Discover towering dunes, ancient volcanoes, and desert solitude

To drivers speeding by on Interstates 15 and 40, Mojave National Preserve, roughly 150 miles/241 kilometers northeast of Palm Springs, may appear featureless and inhospitable. But a closer look reveals the preserve’s wonders: water-sculpted canyons, ancient lava flows, limestone caverns, massive sand dunes, and Joshua tree forests reaching to a desert horizon.

Start your visit at the preserve’s excellent visitor center, which is housed in the renovated Kelso Depot, a Spanish Mission Revival style railroad stop opened in 1924. Pick up maps and information, then explore the preserve’s highlights. The most popular sunset and sunrise spot is the nearby Kelso Dunes, the second largest dune system in California. These dunes cover 45 square miles/72 square kilometers and soar to more than 600/183 meters, and in spring, desert wildflowers dapple the sands with color. Climb the highest dunes and you’re rewarded with a desert panorama.

After a seven-year closure, Mitchell Caverns—spectacular limestone caves hidden in a hillside at Providence Mountains State Recreation Area—reopened in late 2017. Take an hour-long guided tour—which involves a 1.5-mile round-trip hike to the entrance—to see the caverns and their remarkable dagger-like formations. (Tours are by reservation only and take place Fridays through Sundays and on holiday Mondays.)

Another popular hike—and a memorable workout—is the 3-mile/5-km round-trip trek to the summit of 5,775-foot/1,754-meter Teutonia Peak, the highest point on Cima Dome, an almost perfectly symmetrical formation covered by the world’s largest concentration of Joshua trees. Take plenty of water, and avoid hottest parts of the day. For an extra dose of desert adventure, pitch a tent at either Hole-in-the-Wall or Mid Hills Campground.

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Red Rock Canyon State Park

Red Rock Canyon State Park
Walk among wrinkled sandstone cliffs colored red and rust, then be humbled—in the best possible way—by the nightly star show

At the edge of the El Paso Range, about 80 miles east of Bakersfield, eroded badlands rise up from the sandy soil, their whimsical shapes sculpted by eons of wind and water. Once the home of the Kawaiisu Indians who carved petroglyphs in the vividly colored cliffs, and later a gold mining site, stagecoach stop, and backdrop for Hollywood westerns, Red Rock Canyon State Park preserves this multi-hued collection of creased and folded sandstone buttes.

Photographers gather at sunrise and sunset to capture the badlands’ saturated colors—whites, pinks, reds, and browns. Geologists come here to study the colorful rocks. Each hue tells a geologic story: red for sandstone that was deposited in stream and river channels, white for sandstone that was subjected to ash from volcanic eruptions, gray for sandstone that was deposited in huge floodplains. Paleontologists flock here, too. Embedded in the rocks are the remains of prehistoric animals—three-toed horses, saber-tooth cats, and alligator lizards. Ninety species of fossilized plants and animals have been documented in Red Rock Canyon.

Take a walk among these fascinating badland formations on the 1.2-mile Hagen Canyon Nature Trail, and you’ll find photo opportunities everywhere you look. Some of the fluted cliffs look like colorful candles melting in the sun. Others have small caves or “windows,” inviting children (and adults) to climb and explore. A smattering of Joshua trees add a touch of green to the desert palette.

Across the highway in the park’s Red Cliffs region, a trail leads past 300-foot-high sandstone columns, their red tint caused by iron oxide (rust). After a wet winter, spring wildflowers erupt in a riot of color. Flower fans search for the Red Rock poppy, a rare and possibly endangered species. If you’re a television buff, you might recognize this otherworldly landscape from vintage shows like Bonanza and Lost in Space. Red Rock Canyon’s cliffs have appeared in more than 100 Hollywood films.

The park’s beauty doesn’t end at sunset. More than 100 miles from L.A.’s bright lights, Red Rock Canyon offers astronomy buffs a blissfully dark night sky. Amateur astronomers set up telescopes almost every night, but you can see the Milky Way and count shooting stars with just your wide-open eyes. On Saturday nights, park docents give talks on astronomy, petroglyphs, desert tortoises, Joshua trees, mining history, and more.

Red Rock Canyon is far from the nearest large town, so make sure your car is stocked with gas, water, and snacks. Pitch your tent at the park’s 50-site Ricardo Campground, or give glamping a try—snuggle up in a tipi at the Olancha RV Park and Motel, an hour’s drive north. Choose your tipi by motif—Horse, Buffalo, Raven, Hawk, Coyote—and then relax in a comfy bed, cuddled in a soft duvet (these cozy tipis have air conditioning and heating, too).

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Guided hike by Kodiak Greenwood

Indian Canyons

Indian Canyons
Palm oases and desert waterfalls

Discover the natural side of Palm Springs with a visit to these remarkable oases. Home to dense stands of towering California fan palms, these canyons are places of surprising life and beauty, with wildlife including desert bighorn sheep, and the sound of birdsong and trickling streams.

Each of the Indian Canyons, all located within Agua Caliente Cahuilla tribal land on the west side of Palm Springs, has its own distinctive character. One of the most popular is Tahquitz (pronounced “tah-keetz”) Canyon; where you can join a guided hike or walk on your own to the base of a 60-foot/18-meter waterfall—note that in dry years and seasons it might not be more than a trickle). Movie buffs might recognize these falls as the entrance to Shangri-La in Frank Capra's 1937 film classic Lost Horizon. Relax to watch birds flit in the filtered light; also follow trails to see Indian rock art. The visitor center features exhibits and an informative short film, and highlights the region’s Native American culture.

Palm and Andreas Canyons offer footpaths that lead past colorful rock formations and to streamside palm oases. Andreas Canyon has more than 150 species of plants within a half-mile/a three-quarter-km radius; see how many species you can spy along the twisting, 2-mile/3.2-km out-and-back trail into Murray Canyon. The canyon twists and turns, so you never know what’s around the next bend—soaring red cliffs, stately fan palms, and barrel cactus that swell after spring rains. And at trail’s end, you reach the Seven Sisters, a beautiful terraced waterfall (flow varies with rainfall and season).